House debates

Wednesday, 6 February 2013


Low Aromatic Fuel Bill 2012; Second Reading

5:38 pm

Photo of Warren SnowdonWarren Snowdon (Lingiari, Australian Labor Party, Minister for Defence Science and Personnel) Share this | Hansard source

Thank you for the contributions that have been made thus far, although I have to make some comments about the contribution of the member for Menzies—and I will, in short order. Whilst I had some affinity with some aspects of what he said, the majority of what he said was a misplaced understanding of what is happening, what has happened and what will happen. That, to me, is a bit of a worry, given that he is up here parading himself as some sort of expert in this place.

Secondly, I might just comment very briefly on his outrageous statements about the Labor Party's attitude towards the misplaced intervention by Mal Brough, when he was a minister in the previous Howard government, and the Howard government's approach to dealing with Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory, without any consultation. Just a moment ago we heard him refer to a bottom-up approach to how best to deal with issues and problems such as petrol sniffing in Aboriginal communities.

Let me tell you: there was no bottom-up approach with the intervention.

It was jackboot diplomacy from the then minister responsible, Brough, under the instructions and leadership of Prime Minister Howard and you as one of his cheerleaders. I make no apology at all for siding with the views of so many people in the Aboriginal community across the Northern Territory on their concern with the way the intervention took place and its outcome.

Neither do I make any apology for the way in which Labor has dealt with the intervention process, the emergency response after we came to government in 2007, the changes we have made, and now the Stronger Futures legislation which has been passed in this parliament—very, very different from the intervention. The intervention is dead, thank God! And I do not know one Aboriginal person in the Northern Territory who would say, 'Bring back the intervention', 'Bring back Mal Brough', or 'Bring back that attitude of dictatorial relationships with Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory or elsewhere in Australia', because that is what it was.

As the member for Lingiari, which of course is the place this was focused on, I know what I said in this place and outside at the time, and my attitude has not changed. Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory know what happened last time they elected a coalition government, with the intervention, and they know what to expect next if the coalition should be elected to government later this year. They know what to expect, and they would be rightly concerned about the overbearing interference and dictatorial relationships which were developed previously and which would, no doubt, be developed in the future.

But that is not the reason we are here. We are here to discuss the Low Aromatic Fuel Bill 2012. I understand the shadow minister's attitude towards the community affairs report, but I do not think he understands me—which is a bit of a problem, because I am the minister responsible. He needs to understand that I have been making efforts, for some considerable time now, to get state and territory governments to deal together with the issue of petrol sniffing and how to have a uniform approach across jurisdictions, but to no avail. Whilst he talked about Northern Territory legislation—which, I agree, has some positive elements to it—it does not extend to those matters that cross borders, and I have to say that it has not been used previously in the Northern Territory in the way in which he suggested.

I want to just give you some background as to why I think this is important. I will come to the bill itself in a moment, but, just so you know, I come to this subject with some experience. I have a publication here of which I was a co-author. It is called A Certain Heritage. It was co-authored by HC Coombs, MM Brandl and me, and it refers to a petrol sniffing program which we were part of trying to set up in 1981 in South Australia, at a place called Angatja, and this petrol sniffing program, unique in its time, was about addressing the issues to do with juveniles sniffing petrol in a place called Amata in the Pitjantjatjara lands of South Australia. I am very conversant with the impact of petrol sniffing on communities. This program was designed: to establish the principles that the care of Pitjantjatjara juveniles should be primarily a Pitjantjatjara responsibility and that programs to rehabilitate juvenile offenders should be designed and controlled by Pitjantjatjara people; to avoid offenders being sent to non-Aboriginal institutions; to develop a rehabilitation program which was based on participation in and knowledge of their traditional culture and was therefore supportive and likely to reintegrate, in this case, the boys into their own society; and to assist participants to acquire personal skills which would help them deal successfully with their own and the majority culture.

Things have not changed.

In my experience, successful programs around petrol sniffing have the same sort of basis: local community control, local community support and local community ownership. I commend those people who have been advocating for this legislation from their communities, such as those people in the parliament today from Titjikala, which is just south of Alice Springs and in my electorate. I commend them for what they are doing.

Let me now put into focus what has been happening around low aromatic fuel. The government has subsidised low aromatic fuel since 1998, starting with the Comgas scheme, which was an initiative by the then health minister, now Leader of the Opposition, Mr Abbott. In 2004, BP began producing a low aromatic 91-octane unleaded fuel called Opal. In the next year, the government of the day introduced the petrol sniffing strategy, which covered the supply of low aromatic fuel as well as issues around justice, treatment and youth diversionary programs, which continue. In February of 2006, just 43 sites in the Northern Territory or Central Australia stocked low aromatic fuel. Today, there are 127 sites receiving low aromatic fuel across regional and remote Australia. The Labor government pledged to expand the supply and uptake of Opal fuel and we have committed $115.8 million to the rollout of low aromatic fuel over five years from 2011-12.

More than 20.8 million litres of low aromatic fuel was produced in the 2011-12 financial year. Under this government's planned expansion, that fuel will be sold at an additional 39 retail sites, including areas in Western Australia, the Top End of the Northern Territory and indeed Queensland. Importantly, it will also see the construction of bulk storage facilities to improve the continuity of supply, which will reassure retailers. Later this year Shell Australia will also begin producing its own low aromatic fuel, stocking it and transporting it to communities in the Top End, the East Kimberley, the Gulf region of Queensland and Cape York. Low aromatic fuel is a reliable and effective replacement for regular unleaded petrol. The addition of a new producer may also help to break down some of the myths around its use. These myths once abounded. They have largely been seen to be just that: myths.

We know that the rollout of low aromatic fuel to date has produced some great results that should stand alone as a reason Opal and fuels of its type are so vital in this country. I know that there has been interest shown by overseas communities in Opal fuel. I know that there have been discussions with people in Canada. In Central Australia, petrol sniffing dropped by more than 90 per cent following the introduction Opal fuel. The Menzies School of Health Research is now collecting data across 41 communities. That work will continue until 2014. After that, we will have a guide on the situation and accurate knowledge of the impact of low aromatic fuel on those communities.

We know that low aromatic fuel has a huge and positive impact on people's lives. It can mean the difference between health and sickness, education and no education, employment and unemployment and, ultimately, life and death. This bill, the Low Aromatic Fuel Bill, provides us with a good basis to build on the success of the petrol sniffing strategy initially developed by the coalition government. It will ensure the supply of low aromatic fuel to high risk locations to reduce the risk of harm when some retailers refuse to stock it. While I appreciate the advice from the shadow minister opposite, it has been my absolute intention to try to get people to voluntarily participate in this program, but unfortunately there remain some who are intransigent, and we need to deal with that.

Technical issues in the original legislation introduced in the Senate have been addressed by this government and amendments passed by the Senate in November 2012. The government amendments passed by the Senate will require me as the minister to give consideration to whether there are adequate facilities and arrangements for the supply of low aromatic fuel to an area prior to designating a fuel control here.

It will also mean that I may grant exemptions from certain offences, if necessary, because of the unavailability of low aromatic fuel in that area.

The bill's objectives reduce the harms caused by petrol sniffing and must be strengthened. It should come as no surprise when I say that responsibility falls to the states and territories in the first instance, and we have already heard the shadow minister opposite say that that is very important. They have to accept the responsibility, and to date they have not. Their designation of a fuel control area will only occur—and I stress this—where I am satisfied that the states or territories have been derelict in their duty to their people and have failed to enact their own legislation consistent with the Low Aromatic Fuel Act.

I would have thought that that is not a bad exercise: that we give the states and territories the opportunity to act, and if they do not—if they are derelict in their duty—we will act, and I make no apology for it. We have had consultations. I have spoken to health ministers over a long period of time, but it cannot go on forever. We require collective action. Work is underway through the Standing Council on Health.

We want to see coordinated action across jurisdictions to ensure a consistent approach to controlling the use of volatile substances like petrol. The Low Aromatic Fuel Bill lets this government rule a line under this. It gives us a power and a responsibility to step in and protect the health and lives of people affected by petrol sniffing if local retailers refuse to come on board and if the state and territory governments will not act.

Lest people believe that this is something that should not attract our attention—and I know there is a lot of debate in Central Australia—let me tell you that there are areas of the Northern Territory where it is becoming endemic and indeed is prolific. There will be a meeting next week, I think, at Barunga or Beswick, south of Katherine, to discuss petrol sniffing. I had a discussion with traditional owners from Beswick only last week. They expressed their concern about the issues to do with petrol sniffing in their community. There have been large numbers of youths, particularly young boys in the first instance, who have been petrol sniffing at Yirrkala in north-east Arnhem Land.

These are issues that we must address. And if this bill helps us address them, then we need to use this bill to make sure we do so. I make no apology for having this legislation in the parliament. It is my primary desire for people to voluntarily adopt Opal when they are retailing fuel. But, in circumstances in which they continue to resist and oppose, and where we know that the sale of petrol from those retail outlets has a detrimental and potentially devastating effect on communities, then we must act. And if the Northern Territory or state governments are not prepared to act in those particular cases then at some point we may need to make a decision, and I am committing myself to making those decisions where they are necessary.

I believe that the opposition should rethink what it is doing here, because we know what the outcome has been. We know that the state and territories need to do a lot more work in this area, and I would ask the opposition to rethink their attitude and to support this legislation.


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